I’m at a loss for words over the Devils’ 3-0 start, where they’ve scored a whopping sixteen goals in those three games and just outgunned one of the top offensive teams in the league at their building. For a team that’s been in the bottom three-five in scoring the last several years, to say it’s been an eye-opening start to 2017-18 is an understatement. My football Jets tied for first place on a three-game winning streak and my Devils the only unbeaten team in the Eastern Conference, is this 2009 or 2017? It would be one thing if the Devils were winning games 2-1 and 3-2 leaning on Cory Schneider like they did two years ago when they stayed in the playoff race through February, but this team is winning the way GM Ray Shero envisioned when he took over.
It was a laughable mantra the past two seasons, especially last year. An empty slogan meant to sell a bad team off the ice more than actually describe an attainable state of being on the ice. Obviously it was going to take time to make the team over from the old, slow, hopeless outfit they were in 2015 when Shero took over. Our hot 2/3 of a season in 2015-16 was more illusory than anything else, attained by good goaltending from Cory Schneider and a bunch of gritty role players playing above their heads. When the bottom fell out at the end of that season and after a good first month last year, it seemed as if the turnaround was still a long way off, if it was possible at all.
Perhaps the turnaround was just around the corner though.
Certainly there was tangible change this offseason after a dissapointing year two of the Shero regime. While getting the #1 overall pick was a matter of good fortune, Shero still had a hard decision in picking Nico Hischier over Nolan Patrick. It’s obviously too early to suggest he and scouting director Paul Castron made the right choice but certainly it seems a guy like Hischier with his creativity and speed was just what the doctor ordered for this group of forwards. There was no luck involved with Shero’s trade for Marcus Johansson however, as for a third straight offseason he managed to add a top six forward (Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri) at arguably below market value. In one way or another, the Devils’ entire top six last night was acquired or drafted by Shero in the span of just two years, starting with drafting Pavel Zacha at #6 overall in 2015. Our top six last night was unfathomable two years ago – Hischier, Zacha, Johansson, Hall, Palmieri…and Jesper Bratt, your current 2017 Calder trophy leader.
Just nineteen years old and a sixth-round draft pick in 2016, Bratt was expected to be in the OHL this year and not even get the token nine-game callup. However, the winger dazzled in development camp, during the prospects challenge and in training camp earning not only a shot with the NHL Devils but an opportunity to play in all situations. Bratt’s defying all expectations, averaging just under 17 minutes a night and playing in all situations – on the power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5 – and excelling at all of them. Through three games Bratt has three goals and three assists, spread out evenly with a goal and and assist on the PP, shorthanded and 5-on-5 and is one of the biggest reasons why the hopeless, plodding group of forwards last year looks like a dynamic force.
While the forwards have shown improvement with the flash and skill up front, there’s also been a surprising amount of grit and effectiveness from the back six and role players on the penalty kill. Castoffs like Brian Gibbons and forgotten middling prospects like Blake Coleman have actually filled the void of having no Travis Zajac or Brian Boyle on the PK. Killing off 15-18 penalties on paper is okay, nothing spectatular but the PK has also scored three shorthanded goals and did beastly work going 6-6 against Colorado and again last night, contending with eight penalties including two extended 3-on-5’s. Up just 3-2 in the second period, the first of those 3-on-5’s was certainly a turning point – for the Devils.
Gibbons’ goal was apparently the first ever 3-on-5 scored by the Devils in the regular season. I’ve always remembered the 3-on-5 shorthanded goal Scott Niedermayer scored against the Panthers in the first round of the 2000 playoffs but didn’t actually think that was the last time it happened in franchise history.
New Jersey eventually killed off that entire five-on-three to boot though they couldn’t kill off the second extended five-on-three late in the third period. Fortunately Schneider had a terrific game, making 47 saves, and the Devils’ offense gave them enough of a cushion where they weren’t seriously challenged in the third period after another of the aformentioned grinder fourth-liners (Coleman) scored early in the third to make it a 5-2 lead. For one night the three-goal lead was not the worst lead in hockey.
Another back six forward had a big impact last night too – Miles Wood, after being a healthy scratch for the opener came out inspired during these two road games and not only scored twice last night but nearly had the hat trick goal late in the third period. Wonder what Lou Lamoriello must have been thinking seeing two of his former picks in Wood and Coleman burn the Leafs last night sitting in the home GM’s suite at the ACC or whatever their building’s called now watching a completely different team than the one he left two years ago.
I’ve probably been remiss not giving enough love to the D but let’s face it – 40+ shots allowed for the home opener and 50 allowed last night isn’t sustainable although taking fewer penalties would help too. I will say this about the D…the surprising scratch of veteran Ben Lovejoy in two of the first three games shows the team’s not only serious about accountability after an offseason with multiple players being shown the door, but also serious about giving younger defensemen Mirco Mueller and Will Butcher a shot in the early going. While I haven’t been that impressed with Mueller yet he’ll get a longer rope given the team gave up a second-round pick for him and he’s not waiver-exempt like Butcher. Butcher on the other hand has dazzled offensively with five assists in the first three games and has provided the PP (and the blueline as a whole) a jolt it needed after a poor 2016-17. Sophomore Steven Santini did well enough on the first pairing with captain Andy Greene last night.
Perhaps most of the changes on D have been more subtle to this point than the forwards but even there you can see the Shero blueprint of getting quicker and younger starting to bear a little fruit. It also will help the D if Cory can maintain his 2013-16 level of play rather than the ‘WTF, dude?!’ version who hit the ice last year, not to mention backup Keith Kinkaid maintaining his level of play last year where he actually outplayed Cory for the most part. Kinkaid will get his first action of the season this weekend, either against the Caps tomorrow or the Rangers Saturday.
My brain’s telling me to pump the brakes on the hype a little, but let’s face it – this season was going to be about whether you saw hope for the future. Clearly through three games we’ve seen that in many different ways. Whether the future is in fact actually now, that’s going to take longer to answer. Of course the fact we’re even asking the latter is a sign of real progress.